A new study in The New England Journal of Medicine could shed light on a rare victory in the fight to combat sexual violence on college campuses.
The trial showed that a “sexual assault resistance program” given to female students could substantially reduce the instance of sexual assault among women in their first-year of college.
A group of researchers surveyed roughly 900 first-year female students at three Canadian universities for the study.
Among the 451 women randomly assigned to the program — which consisted of four units covering topics such as assessing risk from acquaintances and engaging in effective verbal and physical self-defence — the risk of rape was 5.2%. The 442 women in the control group — who were only provided access to brochures on sexual assault — faced 9.8% risk of sexual assault.
The risk of attempted rape was also much lower among the women in the education program — 3.4%, versus 9.3% for the students in the control group.
The lead author of the study — University of Windsor social psychologist Charlene Y. Senn — told The New York Times that part of the effectiveness of the study was that it upended many of the students’ understandings of sexual assault, which often comes from acquaintances or romantic partners, rather than a violent stranger.
This study comes in the midst of a major discussion about sexual misconduct on college campuses and the best strategies to combat student rape. By some estimates, roughly 20% of college women will be sexually assaulted during their time on campus — although this statistic has been disputed.
Senn and her co-authors, though, may face some criticism for devising a program that arguably places the onus for sexual violence prevention on the potential victim, instead of addressing male behaviour, what many believe to be the root cause of the problem. Pundits who purport to know how to prevent women from being raped — such as Emily Yoffe’s Slate column calling for college women to drink less alcohol — have been met with serious backlash.
The best solution, many believe, would be combine the the type of training the Canadian students received with other methods of sexual assault prevention such as bystander training, which trains students to identify and intervene in potentially harmful situations.
Overall, outside experts seemed to believe that the recent New England Journal of Medicine study is a significant step in the right direction, but not a permanent solution to keeping students safe.
“It’s an important, rigorous study that shows that resistance and self-defence training needs to be part of college sexual assault prevention … This won’t solve the problem, but it’s an important piece that has been overlooked,” Sarah E. Ullman, a professor of criminology, law and justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told The New York Times. Ullman, The Times notes, was not involved in the research.
Senn agreed. “It gives women the knowledge and skills they need right now, but the long-term solution is to reduce their need to defend themselves,” she told The Times.
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